Music and Meaning

One’s thoughts often seem, at the time, to be of vital significance, holding empirical ideas not thought of previously. This is invariably not the case, of course, but they can be of real importance to oneself, and so I start here with apologies for the following little ruminations which have been produced through both amusing and exasperating thoughts brought on, usually, by other music heard in concert. It may be the teacher in me, which though now a pastime expired, seems to want to reconnect and assist and improve. Meretricious though that may be, and possibly useful to some, I hope sincerely that there is no egotistical gain in these testaments that follow, but merely a humble desire to communicate. 

All these thoughts involve music, of course, and mostly from a composer’s viewpoint, for which I give no apology, which I hope may be entertaining to some, and useful to most of those who read them. They are written in a spirit of generosity, so I hope that they may invigorate, provoke, and perhaps be valuable in some way.



There has been a tendency within my lifetime of seeing the values and practices and history of the Western world as passé, worn out, and old fashioned, and, because of its colonial past, world wars, and capitalist exploitative methods, the younger generations have found it expedient to deny its worth and adopt other values. This is a quite normal generational pendulum swing against all things paternal, and resulted, after the second World War, in emerging composers looking eastwards for their inspiration, especially those on the west coast of USA – the ‘Far East’ was not at all far from them! This outward search can be seen in such different circumstances as the exploits as the Beatles, sitting at the feet of their Indian guru, to John Cage using the ‘I Ching’ book of chance to find what to write in his music. Both seemed to be searching for alternative ideas, and perhaps also methods, to renew the paths that they had already trodden, in both writing music and in the sphere of ideas too, and this trend has been seen in many aspects of artistic production in the last fifty years of the last century. Perhaps it was the quiet inner confidence of eastern thought that was attractive to others, and which they sought to emulate, and gain from. However, I wonder if the transplantation of a western flower into eastern soil can generally be successful, and my queries revolve around the fundamental aesthetics of the music of these cultural spheres.

It seems to me that one of the major differences between the music of the east and the west, is that of content, and by their ‘music’ I mean that which is natural to the culture. So, for example, in Indonesia, the cultural norm for their music is the gamelan, both Javanese and Balinese, whilst in the UK one may say that it is classical music (I exclude ‘pop’ music from this argument because of its ubiquitous nature, and the exploitative monetary pursuits that lie at its core, and which have nothing to do with its musical response to deep cultural necessities of the whole community). The practice of western composers over the past few centuries has been towards writing music that contains ideas that they have wanted to communicate to others, albeit in both an emotional and an intellectual manner. The practice of those who have written music in the east – and here we come up against a clear difference in cultural norms, because the concept of a ‘composer’ is only really a western idiom – has been to write music which adheres to certain aesthetic and cultural practices and which continues a tradition, increasing the availability of pieces for practitioners. Thus, to continue the Indonesian example, the composition of melodies for the gamelan by expert players increased the pool of pieces available to gamelan players throughout the country. Furthermore, that music, unlike it’s western counterpart, was there to educate and entertain within its cultural norms, not to communicate personal messages. So here we have major differences in the ‘content’ of the musics produced in these areas, and it should come as no surprise that after so many decades of individual western personalities presenting their thoughts to their public (in all the arts), that the younger generations of north America and the West would reject such egotistical display and opt for something more generous, based more within a community, and with a community spirit. The sociological implications of this tendency is fascinating in itself, but the purely musical ideas that emerge, from composers who have written music with its roots in such eastern practice, are those of a music which denies personality, avoids intellectual effort, is not dramatic, is simple, detached, and is essentially totally static and circular. Not all of these attributes may be found in every piece, of course, and here I am talking in general terms of the music and avoiding citing particular pieces, but the abstraction of music has been at the expense of the individual, and his personality, and in favour of communal values. Abstract art, and abstract music of the minimalism sort has these traits, and as such epitomises the concept with a very different content to that of its predecessors. Although extremely popular, with both live and recorded music, I have to wonder at its value, although this is entirely a personal attitude to it. For me, I have to prefer music which engages me intellectually as well as aurally, which excites me and makes me inquisitive, which demands something of me in order that I can find out more from the music. Such are the ways of approaching music that gives me reward, and I continue to look forward to new music doing the same thing for me for a long time to come, since I am inevitably a Western person.

Much of contemporary artistic work – music; art; sculpture – does not integrate meaning into its fabric in any way, which, in my humble opinion, only allows it to titillate the senses in a decorative way, as an entertainment, an abstraction of parameters. This is not to deny that there has been great abstract art, there has, but to my mind, abstraction does not utilize that quality in art which allows for the integration of ideas by the perceptive receiver in order to create something in his mind that is greater than the parts of the work. This we inadequately call ‘meaning’, or ‘content’, and is one of the wonderful mirrors of the human spirit, one of its high achievements that has taken place over the centuries, and particularly in the Western world, where the concept of ‘art’ has its ancestry. 

Personally, I find this a great challenge. I wonder if I can produce a piece of music which has the credentials of others such as Vittoria, Bach, Beethoven, etc.. It seems silly, not to take into account the works, ideas, and techniques of those who have lived and learned so much before me. I cannot deny all those years of composing that has taken place, and all those masterful composers, and all those lucid, lucent, edifying works of art. I find in them inspiration, and a challenge, for me to keep struggling to write music which has all the attributes of such masterpieces. It is, for me, a joy to engage with their spirit, and to emulate their ideas and conceptual thinking, in pursuit of the best in art. I endeavour: therefore, I am.


Abstract Art

Musical abstraction appears at the beginning of the twentieth century, especially with the work of Satie, in France. Much of his work derives conceptually from the cubists of that period in Paris, and like them he wanted to produce music of sculptural simplicity, purging his work of anything complex or intellectual. In effect, he aspired to music that had no emotive drive, but was purely static and motionless, a sort of “whiteness” in music, that did nothing, went nowhere, and meant nothing. This can have its place, of course, but it was a very radical step, to deny musical art of any inner meaning. Even so called ‘primitive’ art was laden with meaning for those from similar cultural backgrounds from which it came, and indeed such artefacts were often regarded as the summit of achievement of sculptors, painters, etc, if their work had the ability to produce connections for the perceptive listener, or onlooker. It is curious that much of the twentieth century was spent trying to deny such aesthetic values. Of course, twentieth century artists and musicians, and painters, etc., were often engaged in finding other ways of commenting on our society, as they should do, but the pure abstract composers have tended not to engage in such pastimes, but rather content themselves with ephemeral aesthetic ideas. Their success is witness to the sorry state of artistic appreciation in our western societies, in general, and a superficial fickleness which latches on to any passing fashion. 

One of the more obvious aesthetic ideas which Satie, and then Cage, adopted was a sense of detachment in their music, both from the composer and to the ideas within the music, and indeed the effect of their music on their listeners. This is again another aim of these abstracters as they developed their ‘whiteness’ or blandness, which was achieved through rejecting dramatic conflict, with a whiteness of harmonic material, coupled with recitative-like vocal lines, clear phrasing with spaces indicative of that of that languid language. This purposeful detachment was carried to the extreme by Cage, of course, by his use of the ‘I Ching’ book to determine much of his music, which was seen, at the time, as modernist, as was that sense of simplicity that these composers strived for. However, the reverse is becoming more accepted, in that such simplicity and negation of parameters of musical language can now be viewed as a fad-ish cop-out. It was part of the trend for reinvention that looked to the ‘East’ for ideas, and took in its cultural artefacts in a rather superficial manner, planting them into the western artistic milieu of the swinging sixties, which was a time when anything could be replanted anywhere. However, instead of taking other musics from their fertile source I rather see the great Western tradition of narrative in music as a challenge for me to overcome and develop. It has, after all, produced music of the highest quality in the past, and represents the pinnacle of that type of music and rhetorical thought, that is peculiarly and uniquely western. We should celebrate this achievement and look to it to develop ourselves; see it as a challenge to our atheistic ideas and technique; warm to it as an aid to our own efforts; cultivate it in an attempt to live up to its achievements. Why deny history and its produce? Is it not wiser to accept the travails of those great minds and build upon them further, difficult though this may be. We are part of a great artistic tradition, and perhaps it is time to not look elsewhere for inspiration, but to our own backyard.



If music is to have meaning of some sort then it must have a vehicle for that meaning to be portrayed by the composer and comprehended by the listener. The ‘understanding’ process occurs through the assimilation of ideas, continuous in time, and we relate them to each other in many possible combinations by our minds, leading to the overall comprehension of the artistic message. It is as if the meaning is borne along on waves of time in ways that aid the listener to put them together in the most comprehensible manner.  The way that the meaning is carried to our ears and our minds is the way that the composer decides to present it to us, the narrative of the music, the story line on which the meaning is implanted. It is as if a conveyor belt carries parcels of meaning to us, but that conveyor belt can twist and turn, ascend and dive in all sorts of patterns in order to tell the story to us, in the same way that a storyteller will lower, or raise, his voice according to the dramatic necessity, will pause, slow down, accelerate, move across the stage, sit, or stand, or a whole host of combinations of these and other devices that he uses to portray the drama of the story to his audience. In the same way, a composer will use tempos, harmonies, melodies, motifs, rhythms, and manipulate them to keep the interest of his listener focused on the route through the music, and ultimately by doing so convey the meaning of his composition. Without all these devices it would be much less interesting, of course, and perhaps dull, and boring. However, many composers today do not use those devices. Perhaps the idea of conscious narrative has become less attractive to composers, but then there is the risk that the message fails to get across, and there is no understanding of the composer’s intentions. Narrative, therefore, is of the utmost importance in the communication process, it makes the music interesting, and allows the communication of meaning. 



Though derided somewhat these days, meaning, in whatever form it may take, is cause for celebration. It is one of the Western world’s great achievements in art. Indeed, art is itself one of its great achievements, and that is also cause for celebration. 

Meaning allows us to penetrate beyond ourselves into the realm of cognition, of perception, of understanding the world, of making sense of its mysteries, which are, sometimes, more to do with understanding ourselves than the outside world. It is that wonderful time when the ephemeral and the unsaid mysteriously gain clarity, but without the aid of language, as if previously unknown ideas come to life and combine with other known ideas to produce a further plane of understanding, previously thought unattainable.

Meaning is about connection, about connecting ideas, and others around us, the way that they think, and the world itself, to build an understanding that is bigger than its constituent parts. It is a door to greater clarity for us, by bringing together different individual components which open upon a vista of cognition, and all done, in music, without that complication of words, mostly, although even when they are used, it is the music upon which they float which adds that other dimension of understanding that is unwritten. 

Meaning behind a work of art is a counterbalance to the nihilistic wildness of the raw world that we live in. But, of course, our urban world is also our real world, and we also need some explanation of that for ourselves if we are to survive it in a humane and respectful manner. We owe it to ourselves, and others, to be dignified and thoughtful in our dealings with everyone in our lives, and that comes of respect, not only for others, but also for ourselves. We have to understand ourselves, we must know ourselves, if we are to have the confidence to give of ourselves and be considerate to the world, and that means that we have to understand our world, and it’s meanings. Art allows us to explore our thoughts, explain our ideas, reveal our unique modes of perceiving our real and spiritual environment, if it has meaning, and if it has relevance to us and others; if it does not it is merely entertainment. If it does not, it is just a pretty wall hanging. If it does not make us ask questions of it, then it does not engage us in that quest for understanding.

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